30 June 2016

Maasai-Inspired 1940s Blouse

Flashback Summer: Maasai-Inspired 1940s Blouse

Although the blanket or shuka was the original inspiration for my Maasai ensemble, it is the blouse that took the longest to make!  This is a longer post, but considering the months that went into making this top... I want it to get the credit it deserves!

The Design Concept

As I talked about in my overview post, I didn't want to make just a plain colored blouse to go with the skirt.  Those are a dime a dozen, and I was afraid that the look would come off as too Scottish because plaid is more readily attributed to Europeans than Africans.  I wanted something in the blouse to seal the look as African-inspired.

Flashback Summer: Maasai-Inspired 1940s Blouse

While shuka are commonly identified with the Maasai while in Africa, their beaded jewelry is connected to them worldwide.  Their large, collar-style necklace, stacks of bracelets, and bright colors are unique to their aesthetic.  I wanted to incorporate this into the top so it would scream MAASAI when I wore it.

However, I also didn't want it to look like a costume.  I happen to own one of the beaded collars I bought in Kenya, but it looks out of place in my midwestern U.S. context and borders on costumey or, at the very least, "trying way too hard" because of its large size and very long beaded strings that hang down the front.  I wanted to incorporate beading in a more scaled-back way.  Tying in my love of Western 1940s looks would be a plus!

I waited and waited, but no design for the top ever felt quite right... until I stumbled across this pattern, Hollywood 1165!  Someone gave it to me, and I made up version three for a work shirt.  It dawned on me that the circular yoke around the neckline would be a perfect shape to mimic a Maasai collar-necklace.  I happened to have some drapey black wool in my stash, so I cut out a collar piece, interfaced it, and got to work on the beading!

Flashback Summer: Maasai-Inspired 1940s Blouse

The Beaded Collar

Now for any of you that actually do beading... I'm obviously not an experienced beader.  This was my first attempt at such dense beading, and while it is by no means perfect, I'm pretty happy with it.  I have had these tiny, tiny seed beads in my stash for several years. I bought them in the Omdurman bead market when I was living in Sudan, and they've been waiting in a bag ever since.  While many Maasai pieces created for women involve more orange and bright yellow beads, I worked with the colors I already had and arranged them in a way that would make them pop most against the black blouse.  Quite honestly, if I ever had the opportunity and resources to make such clothing again, I'd much rather collaborate with a Maasai woman to do this part.  They're just so much better at it!

Flashback Summer: Maasai-Inspired 1940s Blouse

In authentic Maasai pieces, the bead colors have significance:
orange - preferred by women
white - milk or purity
red - blood, warriors, danger, or bravery
black - rain
green - pastures, vegetation after rainfall, peace
blue - the sky or God

I didn't directly copy any Maasai jewelry that I saw because I don't want to rip off anyone's work or pretend this was made by a Maasai artisan.  I did try to stay true to their aesthetic, though, and I based it off of one of the simpler necklace motifs I found in my research.  It is important to note, however, that there are meanings behind motifs and even the type of jewelry piece.  Each item tells a story about the wearer.

Flashback Summer: Maasai-Inspired 1940s Blouse

Flashback Summer: Maasai-Inspired 1940s Blouse

Blouse Construction

Once the collar was done, I began construction on the rest of the blouse.  I chose a view with pleats down the front to keep a streamlined silhouette while connecting the colorful parts of the outfit, the neck yoke and pencil skirt.  I foolishly thought this view would be similar in sizing to the work shirt I created... and I was very wrong.  While the back of the blouse fit well, the front was weirdly about 4-5" too baggy, and the yoke and pleat sections didn't fit together well.  I had already cut it out of my fashion fabric, so I made it work but removing excess at the side front pieces and hand sewing many parts together to be sure they fit just right.  It was a long, frustrating process, but I'm quite happy with the results!

Flashback Summer: Maasai-Inspired 1940s Blouse

I also chose to add a cuff to the sleeves instead of turning the hems under, and I added a string of randomly arranged seed beads around them.  I didn't want to lose the cuff detail in the dark fabric, and it lines up with a Maasai aesthetic principle that "more is more!"  

Flashback Summer: Maasai-Inspired 1940s Blouse

I lined the entire blouse in a black bemberg rayon.  After all that work, I wanted the inside to look as good as the outside.  It covers the seam allowances and shoulder pads and will increase its longevity when worn.  It also prevents the wool from touching my sensitive skin.  

The Buttons and Buttonholes

Obviously, I couldn't let all the pretty stuff of the blouse be on the front and leave the back neglected.  The pattern had a fantastic button-up back detail, and I jumped on this to add some visual interest.

However, I also wanted the buttons and buttonholes to match the couture quality of the rest of the blouse.  Machine-sewn button holes would look cheap compared to everything else, but bound buttonholes would add too much bulk to the back sections which were already quite thick from the facing and lining layers.  I decided hand-sewn buttonholes would add a couture touch while still being thin enough to keep everything functional and comfy.  I used this tutorial to learn how to do them properly. 

Many, many buttonholes later... I was loving how it looked!  I love the huge amounts of buttons on some vintage pieces, and it's a detail modern clothing doesn't tend to have.

Flashback Summer: Maasai-Inspired 1940s Blouse 

As for the buttons themselves, I wanted to tie in the shuka fabric.  It kept the Maasai theme going on the back and also makes the blouse and skirt look like a matching ensemble instead of mix-and-match separates that kind of "go."  I used Dritz 5/8" button kits that I could get at my local sewing store.  Honestly, there must be a better option.  I interfaced the shuka fabric because of its loose weave, and the thickness of the layers seemed a bit much for the little buttons.  Luckily, my husband was able to brute-force them together, though their dome shapes were a bit flattened in the process.  You can't really tell when looking at it, so I rolled with it!

I love how it all looks together!  I'll be able to wear the blouse with other bottoms, and it will always add uniqueness to any look because of all its details.  Quality-wise, I'm very proud of the couture-style work and it feels fantastic to wear.

How You Can Get This Look:

Buy It

The beauty of Maasai jewelry is that it is easily layered over the clothing you already have.  Any of these gorgeous pieces in combination with your favorite black blouse will make a big fashion statement!  I've also included other kinds of tops that are inspired by the Maasai, in case you'd like a bit of a different look.  I just included a sampling; there are many more Maasai-inspired pieces on each site I've linked to!

Below are shops that carry authentic Maasai pieces you can buy for yourself.  (I'm also very careful to vet the shops I promote to ensure there is no copycat work. These shops will directly benefit the Maasai through locally-based non-profits or connections to Maasai artists themselves.  Shop with confidence!)

Flashback Summer: Maasai-Inspired 1940s Blouse
small check top | large check top | blue crop top
black top | patterned necklace/collar | tote bag | bracelets

Make It

If you are not dissuaded by my tales of woe and tedious work I shared already and would still like to make your own version, I'd like to empower you!  While I'd still recommend buying a Maasai-made jewelry item (they do a better job), you can make your own with any seed beads you find and sewing it onto a garment.  Then, for a blouse, pretty much any blouse with a rounded neck will do.  It will be even easier if there is a rounded yoke piece.  Here are a few things available:

Flashback Summer: Maasai-Inspired 1940s Blouse

1950s EvaDress Pattern | Simplicity 1796 | McCall 7196 
bemberg rayon lining | button cover kit

What do you think of the top?  How about Maasai jewelry?  How would you style it in your own looks, if you feel right doing so?

For further reading, check out:
Symbolism of Maasai Jewelry
The Secret Life of Beads
(There is a list of more generally Maasai-related articles in this post)

28 June 2016

Maasai-Inspired Ensemble

Flashback Summer: Maasai-Inspired Ensemble, 1940s intercultural vintage shuka

Have you ever had one of those outfit ideas that stays in your head for weeks, months, or even years?  You mull it over in your mind and figure out every little detail until, finally... it is time.  I've probably been pondering this particular idea for about two years!

Flashback Summer: Maasai-Inspired Ensemble, 1940s intercultural vintage shuka

Flashback Summer: Maasai-Inspired Ensemble, 1940s intercultural vintage shuka

In my case, it was finally time to cut the fabric that inspired me in the first place, a Maasai shuka.  As I explained in my last post, my sister gave me this blanket when she came back to the U.S. from Kenya.  It didn't get much use as it was, and I wanted to make into something that could be worked into my daily life more often.  Obviously, my go-to is clothing!

Flashback Summer: Maasai-Inspired Ensemble, 1940s intercultural vintage shuka

Flashback Summer: Maasai-Inspired Ensemble, 1940s intercultural vintage shuka

I turned the shuka into a pencil skirt, and I made a blouse to coordinate.  I didn't want to make just a plain top; I wanted it to reflect the Maasai heritage of the skirt.  I was afraid that without a bit more uniqueness, the skirt would just look like another plaid skirt.

I will get more into the sewing details and specific inspiration behind the blouse and skirt in the next two posts (as well as how you can create and/or buy your own versions!), but until then, check out my overview post about Maasai culture and aesthetics, and here is the first group of ensemble photos!

Flashback Summer: Maasai-Inspired Ensemble, 1940s intercultural vintage shuka

Flashback Summer: Maasai-Inspired Ensemble, 1940s intercultural vintage shuka

Flashback Summer: Maasai-Inspired Ensemble, 1940s intercultural vintage shuka

Stay tuned for the next posts, and feel free to read more about the Maasai in the extra reading here!

26 June 2016

Intercultural Vintage Background: Maasai-Inspired

The idea for an ensemble started with a blanket.

A red plaid blanket.

And now it is a fantastic outfit!  But... you won't get to see that until the next post, mwahahahaha!  First I want to tell you guys about the background behind the outfit and the people it is inspired by: the Maasai (or Masai) tribe of East Africa.

I'll start with the more personal connection to this tribe: You guys know I lived in East Africa with my fam and that my parents still live there.  For visa purposes and such, about once or twice a year we were required to leave the country we lived in to get paperwork sorted.  Kenya was directly south, easy to get into as far as travel visas go, and it's a beautiful country with fantastic shopping, so obviously it was the top choice! Kenya happens to be one of the countries in which the Maasai live (along with Tanzania).

As well, after I went to university, my sister attended a boarding school in Kenya for her last two years of high school. She, I'm told, had an amazing two years with some incredible schoolmates.  The culture of her school was very intercultural as it housed students from all over the world and was set in a rural area in the mountains.  Part of the culture there included an abundance of Maasai blankets or "shuka": loosely woven, usually red plaid or striped blankets perfectly sized for one person.  They are worn by the Maasai, often draped and knotted loosely around them.  The students carried these everywhere, using them as coats in cold weather, as fruit baskets, as blankets to sit on when outside.

When my sister came back for college, she gifted me with one of these blankets.  I've loved it and often used it when sitting outside, but most of the time it was tucked away.  I wanted to do it better justice as a souvenir of a country I've loved visiting.

So I made it into something you'll see in my next post, and it became the base of a Maasai-inspired ensemble!

The Maasai are a tribe known for producing fierce warriors.  In past years, they would hunt lions to protect their livestock and display their prowess, most often with only one man hunting and killing a lion on his own with a spear.  (Nowadays, with the declining lion population that has changed a bit.)  The men are agile and able to jump really high, a skill that is shown off in ceremonies. They are also considered some of the tallest people in the world (though I can't for the life of me find a source directly stating this with  scientific proof).

One of the things I most admire about the Maasai is their entrepreneurial spirit.  In modern-day Kenya and Tanzania, their traditional culture and ways of life are being threatened and influenced by urbanization and modernization, but they are fighting to maintain their identities.  One of the most brilliant ways they have begun supporting themselves in recent years is by selling their traditional handmade goods to tourists and other Kenyans.

They are especially known for their intricate beadwork.  They, like me, believe that "more is more" and often layer many pieces of jewelry on top of their wrapped fabric garments. They also trade their livestock for materials such as wire and beads to create these items, which they then sell to others.  They know they are good at what they do and that people admire their traditional work, so they cleverly play on that and sell it to them!  (Look below for more reading on this and the threats to Maasai heritage and prosperity.)

And now... just take in all the beauty!  I'll have pictures of my ensemble in the next post, and now it will make more sense to you guys since you know a bit about the Maasai that inspired it.

Further reading:
Maasai Association: Preserving and Celebrating Maasai Cultural Heritage
Video - Maasai: a Brief Understanding
A Lesson from Louis Vuitton's Spring-Summer 2012 Maasai-Inspired Collection
CNN: Will You Be Rocking the Maasai Look Next Fall?
Maasai Women Launch Successful Dairy Business
Can a Tribe Sue for Copyright?
- The Problem with White People Who Dress "African"
Misappropriation of Maasai Culture - A Reflection of Eco-Tourism in Kenya